The Growth of Active Adult Communities The Good Life

With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, the number of Americans over age 55 is growing exponentially—and with improved health care and advanced medical technologies, older Americans are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.

According to Edward Corless, vice president of Wentworth Property Management's Active Adult Communities division, New Jersey statistics show that in 2001 there were five million people in the 55-and-older age bracket. In 2005, there were 10 million, and in 2010, there will be 20 million.

"If you look at baby boomer births," says Corless, "it puts the highest number of 55-year-olds in 2012 or 2013, before it starts to drop off. It is the largest growth market of housing, without question."

People in that market expect to take full advantage of their retirement years, and many are actively seeking opportunities for physical recreation, socializing, and entertainment that make playing a leisurely game of bingo down at the local Senior Center seem like a quaint—and inaccurate—stereotype.

One effect of the emergence of a more dynamic senior population has been the proliferation of Active Adult Communities (AAC) across the state and around the country. These communities—which often resemble resorts more than ordinary suburban neighborhoods—offer amenities designed to allow residents to enjoy their retirement or pre-retirement years to the fullest, while freeing them from many of the concerns, obligations and chores that come with individual homeownership.

Seniors Only (Sometimes)

Active adult communities can include single-family homes, townhomes, cluster homes, manufactured housing and multi-family housing, but they generally come in one of two main formats: age-restricted communities and age-targeted communities.

To qualify as an age-restricted community under the rules set down by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)'s Fair Housing Act, at least 80 percent of the units in an association or housing development must include at least one person 55 years of age or older. Anyone under the age of 19 must be restricted from permanent residency.

Age-targeted communities are similar in that they market themselves and generally cater to adults over 55, but differ in that younger residents are welcome as well. A third option for retirees are what are referred to as Leisure Communities, which are typically marketed to empty nesters, but do not necessarily discourage families or younger association members. Free of age restrictions, these communities offer homes for people whose children have grown and moved away.

But AACs are not nursing homes—far from it, in fact.

"It should be stated that these are not nursing homes where people go to be taken care of, medically," says Corless. "In fact, many people move into these communities so that they can spend more time doing the things they want to do—like swimming or playing golf—and less time doing things like outdoor maintenance and worrying about the plumbing."

Rob Francis, the president of Planned Companies, a building services, maintenance and security provider based in Parsippany, echoes Corless's comments. Francis's company ensures that the community's townhouses, carriage houses, or condos are clean, the premises are well-maintained, and that the facilities are safe and secure. "It really creates a more active lifestyle from fitness to socializing to going on trips or group activities. It's a nice appeal but as you are getting older and getting into your active adult years of 55 and over, you really can congregate with people who have similar interests or hobbies as yourself and your social calendar can really fill up."

Providing the necessary safety whether it's a gated or non-gated community is also essential, says Francis. "They have fully screened and trained and supervised on-site personnel providing the security if it's a gated community. Some of them have mobile patrols to get to a resident needing assistance. Just to have that presence as a deterrent is important. They have absolutely beautiful clubhouses that foster so much activity, the gym, the pool, the putting green. I'm 33-years-old, and I'm drawn to living there."

Freedom and Opportunities

One of the biggest attractions in many active adult communities is the environment itself. Many set aside large tracts of association-owned land for outdoor recreation, complete with marked hiking trails and beautifully landscaped gardens. "One of the things that makes the active adult community so popular—in addition to the luxury lifestyle—is that there is enough space for children and grandchildren," says Doug Fenichel, regional director of public relations for K. Hovnanian, New Jersey's largest residential builder.

Some communities are well-connected—literally. All the buildings are linked by covered breezeways so that even on bad weather days, residents can get to an aerobics or painting class without having to face the snow. They can talk with friends—even in the rain—or eat in another dining room without ever having to go outside.

In addition to the outdoor hiking trails and tennis courts, residents in many communities enjoy a full range of social and cultural programming. They can participate in planning a group trip to the Grand Canyon, or broadcast self-produced content on public access television. Some communities even have their own 24-hour cable network where information about the community and resident-driven shows are aired.

"Active adult communities have become very popular with adults who are empty-nesters who no longer want the big homes that they raised their kids in," Fenichel says. "They want to live in an area that gives them a maintenance-free, luxury lifestyle where they can do all the things they want to do."

Corless agrees. "These communities are beautiful facilities. They have amenities you could never afford to have in your home. It's like a country club or college student union." Indeed, the college campus atmosphere seems to be a popular trait in these communities, many of which boast clubhouses, golf courses, indoor and outdoor pools, spas, in-home services, and a wealth of social activities to choose from.

Corless, just 38, also speaks of the facilities with envy in his voice. "I would move into one tomorrow, if it weren't for the age restriction. I wish I could come home at he end of a workday and go swimming in an indoor pool. It's a great lifestyle."

Different Models for Living

The perception of AACs as fancy retirement communities is not entirely accurate. In fact, many residents of active adult communities are still working. Many residents choose locations that are within an hour of their children or their jobs, or even their doctors. These communities are attracting people who are not only still active and working, but concerned about the greater good.

"Our residents and staff are very outreach oriented," says Marymae Henley, director of resident life for Cedar Crest in Pompton Plains and Seabrook in Tinton Falls, which represent two different takes on the leisure community model. The 98-acre Seabrook community opened its doors in 1998 while the 130-acre Cedar Crest opened in August 2001 and is now home to 800 residents. Both communities feature two clubhouses, multiple restaurants, an all-season swimming pool and spa, a professionally-staffed fitness center, outdoor walking trails, a dog run, children's playground, bocce courts, putting green, and more. Seabrook and Cedar Crest offer more than 150 clubs and activities and even have their own state-of-the-art television studio and cable access channel.

"We just collected 250 pairs of eyeglasses for the needy, and we just launched a program to collect eveningwear and prom dresses that will be forwarded to Hurricane Katrina victims who may not be able to afford formalwear for their homecomings and proms this year."

Cedar Crest and Seabrook are designed a little differently from the usual condo-ownership model followed by most AACs. They are administered and managed by Erickson Communities, based in Catonsville, Md., since 1983. Erickson develops and manages residential communities in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia, which in total are home to more than 16,000 people. Catering to members of the same age group as traditional active adult communities, Erickson's Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) offer many different floor-plans and service packages for residents to choose from—but with a twist.

Instead of owning their homes, residents in Erickson developments are granted a life-lease, which requires an initial deposit and a monthly fee for services—not unlike the arrangement in a residential co-op. The monthly fee covers many of the resident's expenses, such as one meal per day, upkeep of buildings and grounds, swimming pool maintenance, 24-hour security, a shuttle service, and numerous social activities. The initial deposit is refunded to the individual or the estate after the individual leaves the community.

The Price of Leisure

For many retired people and those looking to downsize their expenses now that the kids are all married or settled in their own homes, some AACs offer a scaled-down, more manageable financial picture. In the Erickson homes for example, potential residents may wind up paying less than they would per month on the mortgage for a free-standing home.

"That depends upon the situation a potential resident is leaving, of course," says Henley, "but it is less expensive to live here than most people think."

"We work together with the residents to insure that their expectations will be met, and that their needs will be met as well," she continues. "We review each individual's finances with them to insure that problems don't arise in the future." This review is designed to make sure that residents choose the appropriate home for their individual situation and resources.

In general, units or townhomes in active adult communities in New Jersey range in cost from the high $100,000s to around $1 million, says Fenichel.

Corless reports that homes in many communities begin at about $325,000 and can become as expensive as the prospective buyer can afford. The cost depends greatly on the location and the amenities that are provided.

Special Needs, Special Solutions

While nearly all AACs handle exterior maintenance and groundskeeping chores for their residents, and many offer assistance with household tasks, most do not offer serious long-term health care or wellness programs, choosing instead to focus on healthy lifestyle instruction.

In Erickson's CCRCs, there are programs to assist residents who may need a little extra help with things around the house, or who may have more extensive needs in order to live independently. Association members can choose from assisted living, independent living, and nursing programs. Residents live in their own private apartment units, but have a ten-to-one ratio of residents to community staff members.

"We make a commitment to the residents that if this is the community that is a good match for them, we'll work with them throughout their lives to accommodate their needs," says Henley. In addition, Erickson offers a voluntary Medicare program to complement any government assistance that residents receive.

Along with dedicated staff members, many of the homes in rebuilt with the needs of different residents in mind. Some feature taller commodes and lever-style doorknobs to make things easier for people who may be dealing with arthritis. Doorframes can be built a little wider to accommodate wheelchairs or walking devices. Recognizing that not everybody who moves in needs these modifications, many age-restricted or age-targeted communities make these types of features available by request, or offer special packages to residents as their needs change, rather than simply assuming a one-size-fits-all policy.

"The primary reason someone buys [into an AAC] is for the lifestyle - the social aspect," says Corless. "There is a commonality in age, interest, and lifestyle." The residents themselves largely run the programs, and there is a staggering array of activities available. Indeed, the college campus atmosphere lends itself to as much or as little interaction and privacy as a resident wants on any given day.

It's clear that Baby Boomers are not taking retirement sitting down. On the contrary, they are demanding more and more activities as they relax into their golden years. "They're young, they're active, and they're having a good time," says Corless. "We're far from retired!" proclaimed Henley.

Denton Tarver is a freelance writer living in New York City and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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  • E-mail me the location and address of the two AAC in the catonsville area. I will be needing to reside in a gated community witgin the upcoming months. I currently reside in Gywnn Oak,. I am 58, a State Worker about to retire. I need to get rid of the burden of a home. I need the 24 hr security.
  • I thought it was interesting when you mentioned that one of the biggest attractions of active retired adult community homes is the environment itself. Retirement seems like something that would get boring pretty quickly, at least for me anyway. Living in one of these communities would probably help me not to be so bored when I retire.